All acting is impersonation. That sounds easy enough, doesn’t it? Just make every day Halloween. Doing so persuasively is a very different story. That’s hard. It’s that much harder when you’re impersonating someone everyone in the audience is to some degree familiar with. When it works, impersonation becomes performance. When it doesn’t, it’s Rich Little.
That’s the challenge Ana de Armas faces in “Blonde.” She plays Marilyn Monroe, one of the most famous persons of the 20th century, and with one of the most familiar faces. (Fame and familiarity are related, if not quite the same.) So before talking about the movie, which the writer-director Andrew Dominik adapted from Joyce Carol Oates’s 2000 novel, the question isn’t how good a job de Armas does, per se. It’s how believable she is.
“Blonde” starts screening Friday at the Kendall. It begins streaming on Netflix Sept. 28.
There are times when de Armas looks uncannily like Monroe (they really do have similar eyes). There are times, not as many, when she just doesn’t. Otherwise, it’s close enough that you can forget about impersonation and concentrate on performance.
De Armas has the breathiness of the voice, Marilyn’s slightly off-kilter line readings, the over-enunciated t’s. Most important, she captures the pent-up quality in Monroe’s speech, as if her words weren’t so much spoken as escaping from inside her. Every once in a while, de Armas’s Cuban accent slips through, we’re back in the realm of impersonation, and it’s become a bad one. Dominik does her few favors — except, presumably, with Academy members — with how much emoting he saddles her with. At such times, performance and impersonation defer to stunt.
De Armas’s acting is mannered, mostly convincing, sometimes impressive. A useful comparison is with Kristen Stewart’s Princess Diana, in “Spencer” (2021). Stewart, an even more surprising choice to play Diana than de Armas is to play Monroe, feels as though she’s inhabiting the part. With de Armas, it’s more of an extended visit (literally extended, the movie’s nearly three hours long). She definitely gets Monroe’s blankness, but not what was behind it, peeking out.
It’s easier to appreciate de Armas when you watch Bobby Cannavale, as Joe DiMaggio, Monroe’s second husband, and Adrien Brody, as Arthur Miller, her third. They’re playing famous people, too, if not as famous as Monroe (who is?).
Cannavale is miscast. It’s not just that he’s 10 years older than DiMaggio was at the time. It’s that he in no way carries himself like an athlete, even a retired one. He’s lumpen in carriage as well as manner. In fairness to Cannavale, the character is completely underwritten. He mainly stands around and broods, except for one, horrifying scene where he beats Marilyn.
He’s not the only one to do so. “Blonde” has an NC-17 rating, purportedly because of its very up-close and far too personal view of fellatio being performed (on a president of the United States, no less, speaking of famous people). The several instances of violence against Marilyn, including when she’s a child, are vastly more disturbing.
Brody, who’s appreciably better in his other new movie, “See How They Run,” looks more like John Turturro than Miller, which makes impersonation hard — and performance very hard. He tries to make up for it by acting with his glasses. It doesn’t work. Cannavale has a name to play but not a character. Brody plays a stick figure.
“Blonde” begins in 1933, with Monroe as a little girl. It proceeds episodically, and mostly chronologically: Marilyn with her mother (a truly disquieting Julianne Nicholson); Marilyn breaking into movies; Marilyn seen in several of those movies, each with scenes cleverly restaged (”All About Eve,” “Niagara,” “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” “The Seven Year Itch” — yes, we get to see the famous uplifted-skirt scene several times — “Some Like It Hot”); Marilyn in a ménage à trois with Edward G. Robinson Jr. (Evan Williams) and Charles Chaplin Jr. (Xavier Samuel), which is as close as the movie has to an emotional center. There are the two marriages, of course, that oral-sex encounter with JFK, pill-popping, and the final decline.
Dominik is best known for his 2007 revisionist western, “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.” He’s 54, but “Blonde” is an old man’s movie emotionally, at once resigned and unswerving. Visually, it’s more like the highlight reel of a (very) gifted film student. It opens with slo-mo. It switches back and forth between black-and-white and color. Sound drops out, overlaps, is slowed down. We get a drawer-cam shot, a toilet-cam shot (Marilyn vomits), a womb-cam shot, lots of hand-held camera, an iris, washed-out images, distorted images, double exposure.
The movie has a recurring visual motif: popping flashbulbs. But isn’t “Blonde” one big popping flashbulb? To the extent it has a through line, it’s Marilyn’s obsession with her absent father. She calls both her husbands “Daddy” and gets mysterious letters from a man who claims to be her father. Sometimes “Blonde” flirts with horror movie. Other times with dream or fantasy (when Marilyn’s pregnant with Miller’s child, the fetus talks to her). With the father stuff, it’s melodrama, in no way pure and all too simplistic.
A lot of skill and imagination went into making “Blonde.” It’s just that they’re misplaced. The movie has its own cracked integrity. That long runtime allows Dominik to give it a slow, inexorable rhythm. Everything has a slightly underwater quality. Stardom here has more to do with miasma than glamour.
It’s easy to overlook that the title “Blonde” reduces its protagonist to a hair color — false, in her case — and a category of female appearance. That reductiveness is meant to provoke (us) rather than demean (her). But the movies have a hard time with subtle distinctions like that. They tend to get overwhelmed, even with a filmmaker as intelligent and serious as Dominik. Is “Blonde” feminist cautionary tale or high-toned exploitation? (De Armas does spend a lot of time naked.) If you answered “both,” you wouldn’t be wrong.
Written and directed by Andrew Dominik; based on the novel by Joyce Carol Oates. Starring Ana de Armas, Julianne Nicholson, Adrien Brody, Bobby Cannavale, Xavier Samuel, Evan Williams. At Kendall Square; starts streaming on Netflix Sept. 28. 166 minutes. NC-17
Read next: Critic’s Notebook | ‘Blonde’ is a rare movie with a NC-17 rating. What set it over the edge?
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.